Monday, August 17, 2009

Shrews, Cougars, Foxes, and Bitches


Before going any further, I'd like to take a moment to think about this whole business of shrewish women (see an actual shrew, left). There is a long rhetorical tradition, going back to the ancient world, complaining about women who talk too much. In fact, feminine garrulity is a subject that men have been bitching about for several thousand years. According to early medical writers (who also believed that draining several pints of blood would cure a fever, by the way) "wandering wombs" made women prone to hysteria (from the Greek hystera, uterus), which often resulted in shrewish nagging. Think we've gotten beyond such ludicrous ideas? Raging hormones, anyone? Anyway, because of this genital/congenital affliction, women allegedly tended to over-indulge both their oral and genital orifices (I'm trying to keep this a PG blog, so bear with the euphemisms, please). Not surprisingly, early writers often had trouble distinguishing rhetorical and sexual excess--a chatty woman was probably a horny one, too.

Saint Paul promoted both virginity and silence for women, forbidding them to preach (1 Corinthians) and ordering them to "learn in silence with all submissiveness," lest they become "idlers and gossips and busybodies" (1 Timothy). Saint Jerome was perhaps the most insistently misogynistic of the Church Fathers: he viewed female sexuality as nothing less than a devouring moral abyss, a sucking vortex of lust. Holes, pits, mouths and female genitalia were more or less interchangeable in the most incendiary rants--and sometimes these treatises were so detailed as to be almost pornographic. Widows got the worst of it: by virtue of their sexual experience and economic independence, they were often portrayed as monstrous creatures given to incessant nagging and insatiable appetites. Chaucer's Wife of Bath was the first shrewish, aging seductress to make it into the literary canon; Will's Cleopatra is another. I hate the word "cougar," but it's easy to see how it works, historically. Cougars are physically agile, amoral, and have very scary mouths.

In Renaissance English villages, "scolds" or nags could be punished with carting, a cucking stool, which submerged them underwater (early waterboarding), or a "scold's bridle," pictured above. A nagging wife was a sign of a "disordered" marriage, so husbands were also occasionally subjected to "shaming rituals," such as being forced to ride backwards on a horse through the town while all the villagers shouted insults and played cacophonous music, symbolizing a world that has become inverted and chaotic as a result of wifely disobedience. This is the intellectual/religious/cultural tradition that Kate represents in the play; her "taming" is, from this perspective, a moral, spiritual, and metaphysical necessity. Because really, one woman who won't shut up can wreck the whole world.

I tried to find out exactly how "shrews" came to be associated with nagging women, but I came up empty on that one. I did find out that female shrews can have as many as ten litters a year. I'd be bitchy, too.

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